I had the honor of attending the River Network’s 20th Annual River Rally conference this past June in Cleveland, Ohio. It was timed to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of famed Cuyahoga River fire. I learned over the course of the three day conference how pivotal this fire was to the creation of the 1970 Clean Water Act and the first Earth Day. What I didn’t realize was that these facts were just the first of many things I would learn at River Rally.

I had heard of River Rally from various attendees over the years. The excitement and joy that attendees bring back has always been contagious. It seemed like something I would enjoy, and I wanted to experience the sense of community attendees talked about when they returned. I was very excited to finally become part of the Rally!

To make the weekend even more fulfilling, I was honored to cheer on one of the Alliance’s amazing Board Members, Dennis Chestnut, as he received the revered River Hero Award from the River Network. Dennis grew up in the District of Columbia, and has been a passionate champion and advocate for its waters and its communities since childhood. When I think of the Anacostia River, I think of Dennis and his life’s work, dedicated to making the river fishable and swimmable again. He humbly accepted the award, and told stories about how he learned to swim in the river, because the public pools in the District in the 1960’s were segregated.

From the first moment of Rally, it was clear that the River Network is working hard to diversify their audience and the knowledge shared at this annual event.

The sessions I attended ranged from organizational development topics, such as building a great Board of Directors, measuring diversity and equity outcomes, and making collaborative decisions, to sessions focused on emerging issues like PFOS in our water supply. The plenary speakers were incredible women of color fighting for equity in clean and accessible drinking water for their communities and warriors facing real and present climate change impacts. A morning session focused on how to work with the modern challenges facing agriculture. Nothing about these conversations were a traditional one-way monologue, dominated by one person. Instead, they were dialogues between the speaker and the audience. It was an intentional two-way street of information sharing and knowledge, and included the hard but important work of challenging norms and assumptions.

The Alliance’s very own staff, Erin O’Grady (DC Office) and Leslie Weller (Pennsylvania Office) also presented during this conference.

Erin O’Grady, RiverSmart Homes Program Manager, led a session titled Art, Water Conservation, and Social Justice. This workshop explored the intersection between art, water, and communities. Erin and her co-presenters discussed projects that use artistic expression to increase access, inclusion, and participation in water conservation efforts and utilized creative techniques to collectively consider how art can weave together social justice and water conservation in our respective communities.

Leslie Weller, Pennsylvania Agricultural Program Manager spoke about her conservation work with the Plain Sect community in Lancaster, PA. She shared the challenges Pennsylvania, and in particular Lancaster, face in an effort to improve the quality of water we drink and use recreationally. Leslie shared her experiences as well as the Alliance programs that work collaboratively with the Plain Sect community, who make up the majority of farmers in Lancaster County. The session was a panel discussion including two additional women working with women landowners across Ohio and New York to inspire conservation on rented acres.

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the River Rally, and get to participate first-hand. I look forward to continuing to share the lessons I learned this June with my staff and colleagues, and can’t wait to see what next year’s Rally has in store!